Researchers Find That Socioeconomic Experiences in Childhood May Help Shape
Long-term Health

Childhood experiences may have an exacerbating effect on disease later in life, according to a new University of British Columbia study.


Leading a team of UBC researchers, Gregory Miller and Michael Kobor performed genome-wide profiling in 103 healthy adults aged 25-40 years. Participants were either low or high in early-life socioeconomic circumstances related to their family’s income, education and occupation during the first five years of life.


While both groups had differing lifestyles in their early childhood, the two groups were similar in socioeconomic status (SES) in their adult lives when the genome assessment was performed and all had similar lifestyle practices such as drinking and smoking.


The study, which will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that among participants with low early-life socioeconomic circumstances, evidence suggests that genes involved with inflammation were selectively “switched-on” at some point.  Researchers believe occurred because the cells of low-SES individuals were not effectively responding to a hormone called cortisol that usually controls inflammation.


“We’ve identified some ‘biologic residue’ of people’s early-life experiences that stick with them into adulthood,” says Miller, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and a member of the Brain Research Centre at UBC Hospital.


The research data implies a pattern of responses might help contribute to increases in infections and diseases of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems and may even be responsible for susceptibility to some cancers among people who grow up in a low-SES household.


“The study suggests that experiences get under the skin,” say Kobor, an assistant professor in the UBC Department of Medical Genetics and a scientist at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics at the Child & Family Research Institute.


The analysis of the collected information indicates the possibility that children raised in a low socioeconomic family would therefore seemingly have an immune system constantly vigilant for environmental threats. This raises the likelihood of increased inflammation and the risk for subsequent late-life chronic disease.